Starbucks comes to Mecca

As if the jihadis aren’t ticked off enough already. The opponents quoted in this story seem entirely legitimate, but this obviously serves as more grist for Osama’s propaganda mill. Talk about “jihad versus McWorld.” What can you say but a plague on both their houses? From the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, March 8 (links, emphasis added):

The profane crowding out sacred in Mecca
Building boom transforms holy sites

by Hassan M. Fattah

MECCA — Five times a day across the globe, devout Muslims face this city in prayer, focused on a site where they believe the prophet Abraham built a temple to God. The spot is also the place Muslims are expected to visit at least once in their lives.

Now as they gaze here in their mind’s eye, and make the pilgrimage clothed in simple white cotton wraps, they will see something other than the austere black cube known as the Kaaba that occupies the spot. They will also see Starbucks. And Cartier and Tiffany. And H&M and Topshop.

The Abraj Al Bait Shopping Center, one of the largest malls to open in Saudi Arabia, outfitted with flat-panel monitors, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast-food restaurants and a lingerie shop, is being built directly across from Islam’s holiest site.

Not everyone considers this progress.

“Mecca is becoming like Las Vegas, and that is a disaster,” said Ali al- Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, a Saudi opposition research organization. “It will have a disastrous effect on Muslims because going to Mecca will have no feeling. There is no charm anymore. All you see is glass and cement.”

The mall, which opened a week before the annual hajj pilgrimage in December, is the first in a $13 billion construction boom in Mecca that promises to change how this city, forbidden to everyone but Muslims, looks and feels.

The Abraj Al Bait housing and hotel complex, a huge development towering high above Mecca, has begun to redraw the skyline of this ancient religious city. When the project is completed in 2009, it will include the seventh-tallest building in the world, its developers say, with a hospital, hotels and prayer halls. A public announcement system pipes in prayers from the Grand Mosque across the way, and worshipers can join the masses simply by opening their drapes.

In nearby Jabal Omar, an entire mountain is being flattened to make way for a massive hotel and high-rise complex. Elsewhere, cranes dot the skyline with up to 130 new high-rise towers planned for the area.

“This is the end of Mecca,” said Irfan Ahmed in London, who formed the Islamic Heritage Foundation specifically to try to preserve the Islamic history of Mecca, Medina, the second-holiest city, and other important religious sites in Saudi Arabia.

“Before, even in the days of the Ottomans, none of the buildings in Mecca towered higher than the Grand Mosque. Now these are much higher and more disrespectful.”

Money is certainly one of the motivators in the building boom. Every year, up to four million people descend on this city during the hajj, while a stream continues to flow through here during the year, spending an average of $2,000 to $3,000 on housing, dining and shopping.

Billboards along the way to Mecca remind investors of the potential earnings from owning an apartment here; some claim a 25 percent return on investment. Ads on Arab satellite TV channels remind viewers that “you too can have the opportunity to enjoy this blessed view.”

Mohammed al-Abboud, a real estate agent who has been selling hundreds of units on behalf of the Saudi bin Laden Group, which manages Mecca’s holy sites and numerous other properties here, recounts tales of Pakistani businessmen plunking down $15 million to buy several apartments at a time. Saudi princes own entire floors.

A three-bedroom apartment here runs about $3 million, Abboud said. One directly overlooking the Grand Mosque can reach $5 million.

Critics of the development complain that the result is gated communities where worshipers can separate themselves from the crowds, thereby violating the spirit of the hajj, where all stand equal before God.

“All of Mecca is a sanctuary,” Abboud said. “So how could something like this not be snapped up?”

But some Islamic groups say the building boom also has religious motives. They accuse the Saudi government of allowing archconservatives to destroy historic spots, fearing they would be worshiped themselves.

Ahmed, of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, has catalogued the destruction of more than 300 antiquity sites, including cemeteries and mosques. He says that the house where the Prophet Muhammad was born was torn down to make way for a bathroom.

“It is not respecting the Kaaba, not respecting the house of God or the environment of the sanctuary,” Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who wants to preserve Mecca’s heritage, said of the development. “You are not supposed to even cut a tree in this city.”

Progress has exacted a heavy price on Mecca. The city’s once famed night market, where pilgrims brought their wares to sell, is gone. The Meccan homes and buildings that filled the area near the mosque were demolished in the 1970s to enlarge the mosque. The neighborhoods and families who lived near the mosque and welcomed pilgrims have long since moved away.

Angawi has led a lonely campaign within Saudi Arabia to bring attention to the destruction of the historic sites. Ahmed has worked to lobby Asian and Arab governments to pressure the Saudis to stop such demolitions. And Ahmed, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has built a database of the historic spots now destroyed. Many Muslims inside and outside Saudi Arabia have remained silent about the issue, they say, fearing the loss of funding from Saudi Arabia for religious institutions and projects.

Saudi officials say they have been painstakingly preserving the Islamic artifacts they find, and have been operating two small museums in Mecca. In all, they say, more than $19 billion has been spent on preserving the country’s Muslim heritage. They dismiss their critics as cranks who have no following.

Developers and real estate agents, meanwhile, say that the construction makes room for even more Muslims to take part in the hajj, and therefore serves the greater good.

That suggests that the changes are far from over.

“Mecca has never been changed like it has now,” Angawi, the Saudi architect, said. “What you see now is only 10 percent of what’s to come. What is coming is much, much worse.”

Is this Irfan Ahmed’s Islamic Heritage Foundation?

An April 19, 2006 story in the UK’s The Independent sheds some more light on those supposed “religious motives,” a neat and very convenient conflation of orthodoxy and capitalism:

Saudi religious authorities have overseen a decades-long demolition campaign that has cleared the way for developers to embark on a building spree of multi-storey hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and luxury apartment blocks on a scale unseen outside Dubai. The driving force behind this historical demolition is Wahhabism ­ the austere state faith that the House of Saud brought with it when Ibn Saud conquered the Arabian peninsula in the 1920s.

The Wahhabis live in fanatical fear that places of historical or religious interest could give rise to alternative forms of pilgrimage or worship. Their obsession with combating idolatry has seen them flatten all evidence of a past that does not agree with their interpretation of Islam.

Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to help protect the holy sites, says the case of the grave of Amina bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet, found in 1998, is typical of what has happened. “It was bulldozed in Abwa and gasoline was poured on it. Even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action.”

Today there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. The litany of this lost history includes the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King’s palace in Mecca.

Yet the same oil-rich dynasty that pumped money into the Taliban regime as they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan six years ago has so far avoided international criticism for similar acts of vandalism at home. Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam, said it was time for other Muslim governments to ignore the al-Sauds’ oil wealth and clout and speak out. ” What is alarming about this is that the world doesn’t question the al-Sauds’ custodianship of Islam’s two holy places. These are the sites that are of such importance to over one billion Muslims and yet their destruction is being ignored,” she said. “When the Prophet was insulted by Danish cartoonists thousands of people went into the streets to protest. The sites related to the Prophet are part of their heritage and religion but we see no concern from Muslims.”

But we suspect that the real ultra-orthodox—like Osama and his flock—smell a scam here, and consider Starbucks just as heretical as pagan idol-worship. Oh, and they’re sure gonna love the lingerie shop, eh?

See our last posts Saudi Arabia and the struggle within Islam.

  1. Paris Hilton comes to Mecca
    Another one to file under “jihad versus McWorld.” From CNN, Nov. 20:

    As an American socialite and hotel heiress, Paris Hilton has built up a global brand on her sexy image — and sometimes very few clothes.
    But many believe she has gone a step too far in opening a store selling luxury items in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
    Hilton’s rise to worldwide fame was boosted in part by a homemade sex movie that went viral online in 2003, days before the debut of her reality TV series “The Simple Life.”
    This does not sit well with many in Mecca, which attracts three million Muslim pilgrims from around the world every year…

    Hilton introduced her store on the social media site Twitter, when she wrote, “Loving my beautiful new store that just opened at Mecca Mall in Saudi Arabia!” accompanying the post with a picture.
    She later added: “This is the 5th store in Saudi Arabia, and store number 42 in total! So proud to keep growing my brand!”
    It is not the store itself that is out of place in Mecca — the presence of Western luxury brands is nothing new in Saudi Arabia.
    Sheikh Adnan Baharith, a conservative cleric who preaches in Mecca, said: ”It is unnecessary to have her shop here because we do not need it.
    ”If it was in our hands we would have closed all of her shops in Saudi.”
    For others, the outrage was more about the ongoing commercialization of the heritage of Mecca than Hilton herself.
    Ahmed Al Omran, who writes the blogs Saudi Jeans and Riyadh Bureau, said: “Some people were angry about it and others saw the humor in it.
    “In the end, it’s made a lot of people think about the bigger issue of the commercialization of Mecca where historic sites have been demolished to make way for modern malls and international brands.
    “There’s no particular reason to be outraged about Paris Hilton when we already have Gucci and Christian Dior. But for many it’s further evidence of how the character of Mecca is being lost.”